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Sep 15, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 16)

Clouds Take Computing to New Heights

Pharmaceutical Firms and Biotech Companies Begin to Take Close Look at Evolving Technology

  • When the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the NIH began its 1,000 Genome Project, it turned to cloud computing to handle the massive file transfers and store the data. The FDA is using cloud computing, too, as it updates and virtualizes its data centers.

    Watching this, biopharmaceutical companies are beginning to explore cloud options, looking initially at business applications and noncritical data before considering cloud computing for regulated or patentable data.

    Cloud computing is a potentially disruptive technology that makes inexpensive, pay-on-demand computing practical. It blends the concepts of grid computing, virtualization, software as a service (SaaS), and service-oriented architecture to produce a computing environment that resembles the Internet.

    Unlike a traditional computing environment in which resources reside on specific servers, cloud-based resources—including servers and applications—reside in a distributed, globally accessible environment. 

    Pfizer’s  research and development organization is taking advantage of clouds’ flexibility to analyze large datasets, develop models in antibody docking runs, optimize drug candidates, and select targets. “We have about 500 applications running in the cloud,” according to Mike Miller, Ph.D., senior director for R&D high-performance computing.

    The use of clouds has shortened some of those runs from two to three days to two to three hours. Those gains were possible because the powerful applications running in a cloud could access as much simultaneous computing power as necessary, rather than relying on the finite number of servers in Pfizer’s data center.

    Likewise, when Eli Lilly needed to analyze a drug it was developing, it paid $89 to access Amazon’s EC2 web service, rather than add 25 servers to its data center, plus their software licenses maintenance fees, data center space, electricity, and IT labor, according to Philip Sheibley, life sciences industry director for Accenture’s Life Sciences Practice.

    With benefits like that, “there’s a lot of interest in clouds among our clients,” he says, but they are concerned about the challenges and regulatory environment.

    The current trend, Sheibley says, is to test cloud computing and cloud-based services on safe environments, like such back-office applications as human resources, IT, and financial applications, and for nonpatient data. “There’s not much R&D work under way in the cloud,” but that will change as more applications are developed. 

    The next trend will incorporate clinical data. That is where regulatory concerns become a factor. That shift is already under way, according to Ronald Ranauro, president and CEO of GenomeQuest. His company provides SaaS and Platform as a Service as a suite of offerings for bioinformatics developers and end users. 

    GenomeQuest and others like it are leveling the playing field by making high-performance computing and computationally intense applications available on an as-needed basis. Consequently, computationally strapped companies can run the same robust applications as their more cash-flush competitors.


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